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The 12-inch MacBook: A Different Mac for a Particular User

When I consider Apple’s new 12-inch MacBook, I can’t help but think of my retired parents. My dad is a fan of his iPad mini, while my mom is glued to her 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. But if they had to do it over again, I’m convinced they would get his-and-hers MacBooks (see “New 12-inch MacBook Joins Updated MacBook Air and MacBook Pro,” 9 March 2015). (For the rest of this article, when I say “MacBook,” I mean the recently released 12-inch MacBook, not any of the previous models that share the same name.)

With the new MacBook, Apple is improving on its consumer notebook experience with features like a Retina display and Force Touch trackpad, while also radically simplifying the overall package (for more on the trackpad, see “Force Touch Trackpad Makes MacBooks More Compelling,” 20 March 2015).

Replacing most familiar ports with a single USB-C port has stirred controversy among Mac geeks, but my parents wouldn’t care, or even notice. They’d use the USB-C port to charge the machine, and wouldn’t have much interest in the port’s other purposes, such as data transfer or driving an external display.

The MacBook is underpowered compared to MacBook Pro models and even the MacBook Air. Those who have benchmarked the MacBook say it’s about on par with a 2011-era MacBook Air. But, again, my parents wouldn’t care. My mother’s 2014-vintage MacBook Pro packs more power than a MacBook, but she rarely needs it, given her relatively modest computer uses. A MacBook would suit her just fine.

For Dad, a MacBook would be an iPad-alternative fitted with a better keyboard.

For Mom, the MacBook would be the simple notebook she wants for use at home and on vacations. It would also have a Retina display like her MacBook Pro, but in a more portable package. The MacBook delivers on that score at just over 11 inches, 2 pounds, and a maximum thickness of a half inch.

That’s crazy small even by MacBook Air standards, and perfect for Mom.

Cost? My mother paid $1,279 for her MacBook Pro with Retina display (a refurb purchase made last month), which puts her squarely in MacBook territory. The new notebook starts at $1,299. That’s steep for my father given that his iPad mini cost much less, but I’d wager he’d go for it given a laptop’s better functionality.

I’d bet my parents would also swoon over the MacBook’s good looks. Mom would get her MacBook in gold, I am all but certain. Dad? He’d definitely go space gray.

My point in bringing up my parents: the MacBook is a different kind of Apple notebook for a particular kind of owner who values minimalism and simplicity above all else.

If you’ve been gnashing your teeth at the MacBook’s relatively modest performance, and panicking about that USB-C port while scouring the Web for various kinds of USB-C cables and adapters to figure out how to integrate a MacBook into your Apple existence, you’re not that sort of user. Get a MacBook Pro, for Pete’s sake.

But the 12-inch MacBook looks to be a nice fit for other kinds of users. Here are profiles of a few such hypothetical MacBook buyers — see if you resemble one of these people.

The Cloud Navigator — I’m surprised at the degree to which I have forsaken native Mac apps for Web or “cloud” equivalents — notably Google services. I’m in a browser or browser-based app (like TweetDeck or MailPlane) almost all the time.

While you can fire up a browser on any Mac for hardcore Web-app use, doing so seems especially appropriate on this MacBook. The machine may not be able to keep pace with other portable Macs but it has more than enough power for mainstream computing tasks, with Web browsing being among the most common of those.

The MacBook may be, in some ways, Apple’s answer to the Chromebook (see “Google’s Chromebook Makes for a Fine Auxiliary Laptop,” 24 February 2014), the increasingly popular kind of notebook running Google’s Web-centric Chrome OS and intended for use almost exclusively with Web apps.

Chromebooks, like the MacBook, are being positioned as simple laptops for users who don’t need much power and don’t want any complications.

Most Chromebooks are much cheaper than the MacBook, but that tends to make them chintzier. Apple would argue that buying a MacBook is money well spent for top-flight hardware along with the option to run native apps alongside Web apps.

The only Chromebook roughly similar to the MacBook is Google’s Chromebook Pixel, with a just-as-nice screen and greater power under the hood at a lower cost than the MacBook, starting at $999. The Pixel is heavier and bulkier, but has two USB-C ports along with two standard USB ports.

The Entertainment Addict — The MacBook’s glorious 2304-by-1440-pixel screen makes it a terrific computer for watching streaming video, viewing and editing photographs, reading books, and other kinds of relatively passive entertainment.

What’s more, its petite size makes it less of a burden for such pleasurable pursuits than, say, a MacBook Pro. And while you can’t hold the MacBook in one hand while reading, the way you would with an iPad, it sits better in your lap or on a table.

The iPad has long been positioned as the perfect device for entertainment and information consumption. It still is, but I would argue that the MacBook is a tempting alternative — more so than, say, an 11-inch MacBook Air with a lower screen resolution and screen proportions that suddenly seem awfully cramped to me.

The Tablet-for-Work Recanter — The iPad, though primarily a device for information consumption, is also positioned as a tool for getting real work done. I’ve long pounded that drum, noting that the keyboard cases from a wide range of manufacturers turn iPads into pretty nifty mini-laptops (see “iPad Versus MacBook for the Mobile Writer,” 17 February 2014).

With the MacBook’s arrival, though, that argument may be wearing thin. The MacBook is only slightly longer and wider, and considerably thinner, than an iPad Air 2 in my favorite keyboard case, Belkin’s QODE Ultimate Pro Keyboard Case for iPad Air 2.

The MacBook has a larger, more comfortable keyboard than the cramped ones built into iPad cases. And the keyboard is fully integrated, not wirelessly linked via sometimes-unreliable Bluetooth. The display is bigger. The apps and operating system are more capable on the Mac than the iPad.

In short, an iPad Air 2 with a keyboard case now feels like a wannabe MacBook.

The Hardcore Keyboarder — Some will buy a MacBook for casual pursuits that do not involve heavy keyboard use. I am looking at you, Mom and Dad.

But others, like myself, put a lot of miles on our keyboards. That brings me to what may be the MacBook’s most controversial feature: its revamped keyboard, which feels markedly different from those on older Apple notebooks. The keys have a larger surface area but less vertical “throw,” due partly to the laptop’s thinness. They have a harder, harsher feel.

This bugged me at first and, as I write this, I have not completely adapted, but I am getting there. I’m seeing decent accuracy after an initial period of clumsiness. Interestingly, I’m most at home on the keyboard when taking notes during interviews, which involves super-fast typing in a hyper-concentrated state. In other words, when I forget about the hardware and just let my fingers fly, the keyboard performs splendidly.

I’m also starting to like the keyboard’s extra-firm clicking due to a redesigned key switch mechanism (“butterfly” instead of “scissor”).

Little is more personal than someone’s preferred keyboard, and the MacBook keyboard could be a deal breaker for some. I think I’m fine with it, though. And since the MacBook is a near ideal device for writers of all kinds, I suggest having an open mind about its keyboard. But I also strongly encourage you to try one in person before buying.

Modest Multimedia — I was surprised to see Apple’s advanced Final Cut Pro X installed on demo MacBooks in Apple retail stores. I shouldn’t have been. Though the underpowered MacBook is not a video editor’s dream, it does run Final Cut reasonably well.

I tossed a couple of my modest work-related video projects at it and felt little frustration. I got my projects done with minimal delay, and I have more Final Cut work queued up for the week remaining in my MacBook press-loan term.

I do chafe a bit at certain limitations. The MacBook does not have much on-board storage for media files, and my standard strategy of hooking up external solid-state storage via a Thunderbolt port doesn’t work here.

So, if video editing is your bread and butter, the MacBook shouldn’t be your primary Mac. But those with lighter video-editing needs (via iMovie or something fancier) shouldn’t have major issues apart from using USB-based external storage via an Apple adapter.

MacBook Gear — Speaking of which, some who buy MacBooks may want to spend a bit extra on accessories to make their use of the laptop a bit more practical and pleasurable. None of the following are must-haves for all MacBook users, but you will know if you need one or more of these.

Apple’s own audiovisual adapters, including the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter and the USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter, are necessary if you want to use an external monitor or projector via HDMI or VGA. While you’re doing that, you can power the MacBook via a USB-C port in either adapter, and use the standard USB port also built into both for whatever you wish.

My test monitor has a DVI port, but I was able to get the MacBook working with it by adding a DVI-to-HDMI adapter to the mix.

Apple also offers a USB-C to USB Adapter for plugging in a wireless-mouse transmitter, external drive, or the like, but you can’t charge the MacBook while using the adapter.

If you need a standard USB port for charging some other device, Twelve South’s PlugBug attaches to an Apple laptop charger (including the new one for the MacBook) and supplies a USB port, as well as its own prongs for plugging into the wall.

Alas, it’s only for charging; there’s no data-transfer link to the MacBook. Note, also, that the PlugBug is not an exact fit for the new USB-C charger, but it works just fine. A MacBook-customized version is surely coming.

Twelve South has two PlugBug models, including a $35 U.S. model and a $50 World version with an assortment of international plugs.

A spare charger can come in handy, and you don’t have to use Apple’s $49 charger because USB-C is an open standard, unlike Apple’s MagSafe. For instance, you can use the Chromebook Pixel’s $60 charger if the Apple one is out of stock, and there will be cheaper ones.

Apple, in a support document, says third-party USB-C power adapters will charge the MacBook “if they adhere to the USB Power Delivery specification.”

As an experiment, I attached an iPad charger to the PlugBug and tried to charge the MacBook that way. While this arrangement charges an iPad just fine, it doesn’t seem to supply enough power to charge the MacBook.

Finally, a bag, case or sleeve may be a good idea because I suspect that shiny, non-glowing Apple logo on the lid will scratch easily. I have always been partial to gear from WaterField Designs, and the company has a line of products designed for the MacBook.

Wrap-Up — The MacBook is a beautiful machine that I would never buy, partly because its USB-C port is too restrictive, and also because I can get far better performance for the money with other portable Macs.

These are hardly concerns for the people Apple wants to woo with its new laptop. They include folks like my parents who want a notebook that looks lovely, isn’t overly complicated, and is thin and light enough to take everywhere. It’s also great for Web-app users, video and ebook addicts, tablet-for-work recanters, hardcore keyboarders, and casual video editors.

The MacBook may feel exotic now, but its newfangled technology is undoubtedly headed for other Apple laptop models in the coming months and years. And, like the original MacBook Air, the MacBook will someday be seen as a bold trendsetter. For now, it’s a gorgeous and capable Mac with some practical limitations that restrict it to a specific audience.

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